by Britt Foster
You’re scanning your program’s course schedule, and see no classes being offered in your specialization. Or you attend a conference, and realize that there is a gaping hole in the way your school addresses this important issue in the field. The good news: you’re an engaged learner who is conscious of the resources being put into your coursework and your degree. The bad news: graduate schools have finite money, faculty, and flexibility for adding courses to the register. What can you do to make sure your curriculum meets your interests and educational and professional needs? Take charge!
In 2003, the Student Diversity Action Group came to the faculty of the UCLA IS program and submitted a proposal for two courses, one being a core course that addressed cultural diversity and activist thoughts, tools, and resources for the contemporary information professional. The result? An existing class was dropped from the core curriculum, and Ethics and Diversity became a graduation requirement. As of 2009, UCLA is the only program that requires a course on diversity for information professionals.*
Looking at the motivations for this addition to the curriculum, it’s easy to see why UCLA students asked for such a course. Serving the diverse population of Los Angeles, working with indigenous populations, and designing information access structures for communities across the world, MLIS students recognized the need to be aware of cultural and community differences in approaches to information. The UCLA MLIS program is an incredibly diverse one itself, hosting more ALA Spectrum Scholars than any other. IS students deserved (and demanded) that their education meet an important concern for their research, practice, and development as professionals. If you feel your curriculum doesn’t do the same, here are some ideas to make it happen:
Ask! If you feel a topic isn’t being addressed in your curriculum, the first place to go is your faculty. There may even be a course approved in the register, but it hasn’t been offered in a while because of perceived lack of student interest, or unavailability of faculty. Having other students pledge to enroll in a course should it be offered helps. If it’s a specialization course (such as Storytelling), communicate with the faculty or adjuncts who have taught that course in the past. If it’s a broader topic with continued and broad relevance (such as the Diversity and Ethics course), the development of such a course may take longer, and a coalition of students and faculty is going to be necessary.
Wander! The reality is that no program is ever going to be able to offer everything. Take advantage of other resources in your community. Start with the department course coordinator and find out if courses taken through extension programs or other departments can count towards your degree. If you’re a remote access student, check out university programs in your area. Look at classes in areas like child development, public policy, ethnic studies, law, theater arts, art history… The possibilities for subject specialization, or an introduction to an important satellite topic in your specialization, are endless.
Design it! If you’re lucky enough to have an information professional you admire or a really interesting IS project accessible to you, explore the possibility of designing your own course through a directed study or fieldwork. These are usually set up differently than internships, with more of a research element, making them ideal for both practical and theoretical approaches to a topic of interest.
Expand! If you’re ever going to graduate, you have to take these courses this time around, plus your internship, not to mention your job… It can be hard to make some of the above options fit in your schedule. So why not take what you have and make it work for you? In my experience, most instructors are flexible about making courses work for students. Ask if your major paper topic can be on an issue related to both your interests and the issues addressed in the course. Meet with your professor to discuss your interests and how they see it fitting into their research or topic of study. Ask for resources and readings beyond what’s listed in the syllabus.
Make it un-official! Remember that not all educational experiences need to have credits assigned to them. Check out blogs in your specialization (or not!), and follow topics of interest to you in other fields. Reach out to your student associations and make a proposal for a panel discussion. Take advantage of webinars and continuing education courses offered by national and state professional associations, consortiums, and even vendors. Don’t forget the value of asking established colleagues if you can sit in on their sessions or programming; in my specialization of children’s services, I frequently call the hosting library and ask if I can attend events, even though I have no children. Once I explain that I’m a future children’s librarian, they’re more than welcoming, and usually offer themselves as a resource for any questions I might have. It doesn’t even have to be formal: visiting your girlfriend a state over? Take a walk around the university library and check out their resources, their design, any innovations (libraries are excellent date places, FYI). Home for spring break? Check out the local history archives.
What it comes down to is you. Just as we act as agents for those we serve, be an agent for your own education and professional experience. Explore. Get unconventional, and expand the definition of LIS education!
*Thanks to Professor Anne Gilliland for providing this resource: Service Learning: Linking Library Education and Practice. Chapter 11, by Clara M. Chu, discusses in depth the UCLA Diversity and Ethics core course requirement.